Au Revoir, Voltaire?

For eight years the basement theater at Voltaire has hosted all manner of shows by shoestring companies, launching several offbeat success stories in the process. Neil LaBute’s Lepers debuted there and was later picked up by the Strawdog Theatre Company, while LaBute went on to write and direct the film In the Company of Men. Michael Barto’s production of Under Milk Wood wound up in an extended run at the Theatre Building, and Schoolhouse Rock Live! went on to the Body Politic and then a national tour. But on May 15 Voltaire will close its doors at 3231 N. Clark, a prime venue in a neighborhood that’s grown too expensive to accommodate fringe theater.

James Rohrbacher, general manager of the theater and coffeehouse, says the 70-seat theater has been holding its own but the restaurant is losing money. “The restaurant was popular five years ago, but no one wanted to hang out there anymore,” he explains. Over the years he experimented with various menus, but lately nothing seemed to work: “It just wasn’t trendy.” Owner Mark Epstein says his lease was due to expire in a year and a half, and the probability of higher rent contributed to his decision to close up shop.

But Lisa Dowda, the former actress Rohrbacher named manager of the theater last summer, believes in Voltaire’s mission and hopes to rescue the performing space. Dowda has kept it booked since she was hired, except for a few weeks in the typically slow months of December and January, and she’s called an open meeting at Voltaire this Saturday at noon to gauge the theater community’s interest in seeing it continue. “I would like to find a new space in the same neighborhood,” she says, but doing so would require considerable financial backing or a beneficent landlord. Dowda isn’t sure how she would fund the move. “We probably would do some fund-raisers to get sufficient money to get the ball rolling.”

But even then Dowda would have to pay the rent and remaining overhead if she doesn’t find another angel like Epstein. In the existing space Dowda charged performance groups a flat fee of $100, refunding $40 at the end of the run if the space was undamaged; ticket sales were split between the theater and the company. For theatergoers Voltaire offered some of the lowest ticket prices in town–usually between $3 and $10–which allowed people to drop by casually and sample whatever was playing. Dowda might have trouble keeping ticket prices down in a more costly space, but she would like Voltaire to reopen by early fall.

Bub City, Ghost Town

Bub City Crabshack and Bar BQ, the ten-year-old Lettuce Entertain You restaurant near North and Clybourn, will close March 31. Bob Vick, a managing partner in Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, says it has no plans to open another eatery in the space; the restaurant empire has placed greater emphasis on businesses that can attract both a lunch and a dinner crowd, and Bub City, located at 901 W. Weed in the middle of a congested retail center, failed to draw well enough at lunch or on weeknights, according to Vick. On Friday and Saturday nights the restaurant was filled by people pouring out of the neighborhood’s various clubs, theaters, and other nightspots, but even when business was strongest, Bub City suffered from snarled traffic and parking problems.

Joffrey’s DIY Nutcracker

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago has found a new home for its production of The Nutcracker. For at least the next three Christmas seasons, the company will rent the Auditorium Theatre and self-produce the ballet, giving itself a chance to earn some money if ticket sales are strong. What the Joffrey did not get from its protracted negotiations with the Auditorium was guaranteed performance dates for the rest of the year. The Joffrey eventually wants to mount regular fall and spring seasons in Chicago, in addition to The Nutcracker and its summer performances at Ravinia. But the Auditorium Theatre Council apparently felt that promising the Joffrey specific dates might jeopardize bookings that will generate more revenue. Joffrey executive director Robert Alpaugh says he isn’t concerned: “We just plan to negotiate on an engagement-by-engagement basis.”

Meanwhile, the company is auditing its books for the 1996-’97 fiscal year, which ended last August. The company wound up $2,417 in the red for the previous fiscal year, but Alpaugh says the company could show a surplus of as much as $50,000 this year.

Centre East Gears Up

entre East, the nonprofit presenting organization affiliated with the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, has enlisted Carol Fox to help program the coming season. Between 1982 and ’87 Fox did marketing and public relations for Centre East under its founder, Dorothy Litwin, and now Fox runs her own PR firm. Though a tentative fall lineup has been chosen, she says North Shore Center executives are still negotiating for a four- or five-week run of a new musical on the center’s main stage. While Fox handles booking, board member Mary Manning is handling day-to-day managerial matters. Centre East has just begun looking for a new full-time executive director.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lisa Dowda photo by Nathan Mandell.